The Hardest Part
I didn’t understand the allure of Antarctica until I went there myself with explorers Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen a year after their 2001 expedition. The splendor of the place was undeniable: chiseled icebergs, pristine snow untouched by human feet, a sun that circled but never set. Visiting the frozen continent to research a book about their trip, and seeing the two of them smile incessantly with the giddy joy of homecoming, I saw why they so hungered for the brutal beauty of the place.
It did not make me want to (as they had) pull a 250-pound sled for 94 days in the -35-degree chill (“On Thin Ice,” page 79). That seemed far too hard to even imagine. But if there is one thing I learned from Arnesen and Bancroft, it is that “hard” is relative. They did not consider the physical discomforts or challenges of their trek particularly hard. Oblivious, they forgot to mention in our first 30 hours of interviews that the skin on their faces had blistered and peeled off several times during the trip.
What was hard for them was the mental journey, and worse, the three-year process of securing corporate sponsorships to fund their journeys — a task they’re repeating now in advance of a 2005 Arctic Ocean crossing. From them, I learned a new way of tackling hard things, an approach that is more about softening and accepting, and meeting difficulty with resilience, than gutting it out with gritted teeth. -Cheryl Dahle
We choose our leaders, they say, and not the other way around. Sometimes, though, our leaders make that awfully difficult. Take my assignment this month to unearth the “Leadership Secrets of SpongeBob SquarePants” (page 45).
For one thing, it’s not easy tracking down the famous “pineapple under the sea” (you try finding “Goo Lagoon” on MapQuest). Then SpongeBob’s press agent got all tiffy at my request for an interview. “We’re probably not interested in working with you,” said the Nickelodeon rep, while promising to inquire further; with SpongeBob’s Hollywood debut just months away, apparently the star was too busy in postproduction to come to the phone. So I scoured the source material, watching five years of SpongeBob episodes and trolling the Internet for fan sites such as SpongeBob World and the Church of SpongeBob SquarePants.
I thought I was getting somewhere when the killer blow came, in the form of a call from Nickelodeon’s director of communications, Nicole Mazer. She was onto my quest — and she wasn’t happy. “We don’t like people inferring lessons from the show,” she said coolly. “SpongeBob isn’t out there for educational purposes, and he’s not meant to be a role model.” The leadership secret was clear: Mess with SpongeBob at your own risk. -Lucas Conley
When Ed Breen took over at Tyco International in 2002, he knew he had to change the company’s image — fast (“One Tough Assignment,” page 76). He sold most of the dozen corporate jets amassed by former chief executive Dennis Kozlowski, and moved the company out of its ritzy Manhattan digs.
But the bigger challenge was getting Tyco’s 27 core businesses and 260,000 employees to act as a unified whole. The company’s units were operating as a very loose federation, linked only by the Tyco name. “It’s inconceivable,” Breen told me, “but they didn’t even do quarterly operating reviews.”
Acting as a team, though, involves persuading Tyco’s far-flung businesses to trust senior management again. That has tested Breen’s leadership skills. “You have to get in front of a lot of people,” said Breen, just back from a tour of European operations. “You have to explain . . . where we’re trying to take this thing.
“I’m the first to admit, we’re not there yet.” -Scott Kirsner